Scientists’ Nightstand: Patricia Churchland

From American Scientist:

Church Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I work at the interface of philosophy and neuroscience. I call this endeavor “neurophilosophy,” and in 1986 I published a book with MIT Press by that name. My aim is to explore how developments in neuroscience bear upon traditional philosophical questions, such as: What is the self? Where do values come from? How does the brain cause consciousness? Owing to the tremendous growth in neuroscience, neurophilosophy has now become a flourishing subfield. The crux of my hypothesis is that neuroscience tells us some essential things about the basic platform for morality, but that there is much that arises from problem-solving in a social context, where solutions become social practices that become part of culture.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I am reading Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, by Frank Dikötter (Walker, 2010). I am fascinated by history, and I was stunned to learn how callous and brutal Mao was. Tens of millions of people starved to death during Mao's attempt to restructure Chinese life according to his ill-informed fantasies. I have just finished reading Talking to the Enemy (Ecco Press, 2010), by Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has spent his research life in the Middle East and who has the most up-to-date and educated understanding of Islamic extremists.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

We have a comfy La-Z-Boy couch with a footrest that flips up. I have been known to read there just about any time of day. Because I travel a lot, I have lots of good things on my iPad, such as The Recursive Mind, by Michael Corballis (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

I find myself drawn to history and biography more than to fiction, though as an adolescent I was devoted to fiction — first Nancy Drew, but then George Eliot, W.M. Thackeray and Anthony Trollope. When we first moved to the United States from Canada, I realized that to understand my new country, I needed to understand the Civil War. And for two years, my extra-neuroscience reading was all about the Civil War. I was riveted, not by the battles, but by the run-up to the war, and by the period following the war. I also love the history of science, e.g. T. H. Huxley's account of William Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood; Sherwin Nuland's book The Doctor's Plague: Germans, Childbed Fever and the Strange Story of Ignác Semmelweis (W.W. Norton, 2003) and The Hidden Structure: A Scientific Biography of Camillo Golgi, by Paolo Mazzarello (Oxford University Press, 1999). In fiction, I love George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series. When I need to be distracted, they always do the job. They are witty, rollicking and full of fascinating historical and cultural details, with just enough skullduggery and derring-do to hold one's attention.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

1. David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) is profound and beautiful and still makes the best sense of morality. Hume understood social behavior, its underpinnings and its relation to social institutions and practices. I still go back to it again and again.
2. Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Yes, I know it is a play, but I read it in high school, memorized most of it and pondered its meaning for politics, life and morality. I still do.
3. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren (1946). The movie version, starring Sean Penn, is also wonderful.

More here.